Tired of huffing and puffing to get the small engine on your lawnmower, snowblower or generator started by pulling a cord? You may be able to install a 12V electric starter, but it depends on the engine. Some manufacturers, such as Briggs & Stratton, Kohler and Honda, design their engines to make it easy to convert from pull start to electric start, and they even sell the kits to do it. Other manufacturers aren't quite as accommodating.
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For example, if your machine has a Tecumseh engine, you may or may not be able to convert it to electric start. You need two key components before you can do a small engine electric start conversion: mounting plates and a ring gear on the flywheel. You can usually retrofit the flywheel with one that has a ring gear, but you're stuck without a way to mount the starter to the engine housing.
Does the Engine Have What It Takes?
The best place to find out whether your small engine can be converted to electric start is in the owner's manual for the engine. If the engine is convertible, you'll find a section in the manual confirming that fact and possibly even giving basic instructions for the procedure. The manual will also tell you the part number of the kit you need to do the job, and it will contain more detailed instructions. You don't necessarily need to install a battery. Many manufacturers offer 120V starters with a cord for plugging into a wall socket.
If you don't have the manual, look for mounting bosses on the engine. They have to be pre-machined and drilled or you can't mount the starter. If you don't see any, the retrofit isn't possible.
The other requirement for an electric starter is a ring gear on the rim of the flywheel. This is a notched ring that the starter can use to turn the flywheel. Pull-start engines don't need this gear, but the manufacturer may have provided one anyway. If not, your best bet is to replace the flywheel with one that has a ring gear. Assuming the mounting bosses are there and you can find a suitable electric starter kit, you'll be ready to go.
The Basics of Small Engine Electric Start Conversion
Once you've found and purchased an electric starter that will work with your engine and, if necessary, installed a ring gear on the flywheel, mount the starter to the mounting bosses on the engine. They're situated such that the cranking gear on the starter aligns with the notches on the flywheel gear. Without these bosses, the installation isn't possible.
If you're converting a pull-start generator to electric start, you'll need the appropriate generator electric start kit. You may be able to find third-market kits, but it's best to go with the one supplied by the manufacturer. The kit usually includes a push-button or key-operated ignition switch that also mounts to bosses on the device you're converting. The starter may come with an internal rechargeable battery. If it doesn't, you'll have to plug in the starter to operate it.
Start the Machine with a Drill
If you can't convert your engine to electric start, you're not completely out of luck. You may be able to start it with an electric drill. To do this, you need a socket that fits the nut on the flywheel and a way to connect this to your drill. One solution is to purchase a 4-inch square-head bolt with a shank that fits inside the drill chuck and grind the bolt head to fit inside the socket. To start the engine, turn it on, prime the carburetor and fit the socket on the flywheel nut. You might have to take off the engine shroud to do this. Operate the drill in the forward position to start the engine.
Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker and Family Handyman.